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The Ghost of Grimmauld Place

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F riday 21 st June 1996

12 Grimmauld Place, London

Kreacher was gone again. For a being that was supposedly bonded to her, obliged to fulfil her every whim and want, he spent a lot of time keeping secrets. It was almost as though he had another master, one he was cleverly hiding; not that, if asked twenty-five years ago, Hermione would think he was clever enough to keep those secrets.

But she knew him better now, and knew that were Kreacher a wizard and not an elf, he would have been the most Slytherin of Slytherins to ever Slythr. Or whatever. Fifteen years of conversation with only a crotchety old elf had affected her brain in some weird and wonderful ways. The point was, he was extremely adept at keeping secrets from his 'Mistress', the most glaring of which being where he disappeared to every now and again, only to return hours later with a self-satisfied smirk on his face and smelling faintly of cardamom. She knew he was talking to someone, but who, Hermione had no clue.

It was the early morning, and she'd been alone in the house but for Kreacher and the occasional passer-by since Tuesday. It was beyond dull to wander around on her own, especially since she felt all tightly wound, as if she were waiting for something to happen. Something big.

She winced at that. It was probably a symptom of insanity, to be so convinced that something was right around the corner, something that would change her life forever for the better. Maybe she'd even get out of this half-life, be able to live again. Gods, what she'd give…

There she went again, waxing lyrical about the possibilities of the future. It wasn't likely she'd even have one, outside of these insanity-induced fantasies where someone stormed into the house and saved her from her miserable existence. That was highly unlikely – the only person who could come close to fixing her was long dead, and all of the people who might figure it out thought she was dead.

She bit her lip, wandering into the library and glancing around the familiar haven. Of course, she couldn't read books without Kreacher there to help her, but the sights and smells of the room still relaxed her, and she sat cross-legged in the centre of the Persian rug Kreacher had spent hours cleaning once he realised that was her favourite spot, closed her eyes, and simply took in her surroundings with a contented hum.

What felt like minutes but could easily have been hours later, she became aware of footsteps. She didn't open her eyes, but she did frown. Sirius wouldn't be back yet, she was sure, but perhaps Remus had come to bring him clothes? Or it could be Tonks, little Nymphadora, come to wander and mope a bit like she liked to do, opening the door to Remus's room and gazing at his perfectly hung cardigans like they contained the secrets to the universe rather than simply being the soft, worn, hideously ugly lumps of wool that they were. Hermione felt for Tonks, she really did, but if she were able to speak to the woman she'd tell her to move on, and quickly, before she got hurt. Remus was a lovely bloke; sugar and spice and all that was nice, but with women…

He wasn't good with women. A flash of Dorcas's heartbroken face flashed through her mind, and Hermione chuckled a little, running her fingers through her hair. Of course, he wasn't meant to be good with women. He didn't understand them particularly well at Hogwarts and the intervening years hadn't changed that at all. Men, however; Remus had always been a heartbreaker of an entirely different kind when he let that side of himself have a play, not that he'd done that much since Sirius was locked up in Azkaban. Before, they'd been partners of all different types, even while Sirius cut a swathe through the woman of Hogwarts and Remus carried on a liaison with – well that hardly mattered right then.

She'd tell Tonks not to bother, anyway. Now that Remus had Sirius back the only way to break them up would be to literally break them up, with a sledgehammer or an Avada.

Climbing to her feet, she ambled over to the door and wandered through, trampling the familiar path towards Remus's room where she fully expected to find one or both of her friends, only to stop abruptly when a word was spoken from the base of the stairs.

No, not a word. A name.

"Hermione?"


Monday 1st September 1975

Kings Cross Station, London

Hermione ignored the shrieking of owls, the shouting of students and the panicked flapping of parents to stay here, holding tight to her father, for a few more moments. Behind them the Express waited, shiny, hopeful, puffing steam into the air until the atmosphere was so humid a matronly woman shrieked, her hair curling into ringlets instead of the straight locks she'd so painstakingly styled that morning. Dorcas was already aboard, having arrived with Hermione after they both had spent the last month of summer in Aberdeen with her family, and no doubt she was already stockpiling the chocolate.

"Hermione?" Her father said, his gruff voice easily discerned over the cacophony of the station, his calloused hand coming up to stroke her curls. She'd grown a lot over the past two years, now topping five-five, but in his arms she always felt small and protected, which she often needed and truly appreciated. "You alright, darling?"

"'M fine," she mumbled into his shoulder, still clutching him. "Just want a moment."

His chuckle rolled through her and made her smile, pulling back finally to settle on her feet. "I've missed you all," she told her family. James smirked, Dorea smiled kindly, and Charlus ruffled her hair, left down and wild – "like a Potter's hair should be," her father had said when he'd seen it a half-hour before – despite Dorcas's objections. She'd hugged her mother first, of course, and then James, but her father had the longest because she'd missed him the most. When she'd been home at the start of the summer, she'd had only a day before he'd shot off on some business trip to some other continent, and hadn't returned until she'd been dropped off in Scotland.

James, however, she'd spent the first two weeks with. They'd had their ups-and-downs since first year, but the months of separation had taught them a lesson they'd sorely needed; that they loved each other, and shouldn't let stupid things divide them. Since, they'd certainly argued, but since Hermione had spent most of her time at school in her 'study group' sessions, this had the dual effect of hiding Hermione and Regulus's close friendship from James's scrutiny, and had also kept her from stumbling across James while he was in the midst of what Marlene euphemistically called 'shenanigans'. And, as Sirius pointed out the previous year: if she hadn't seen them doing anything wrong, and nobody else had caught them, then how did she know they'd done it at all?

They were lucky she hadn't sniffed out any large-scale bullying. She might love her brother dearly, but that would not stop her from blowing her top if she found he continued to make Snape's life a living Hell.

A shrill whistle blasted through the air, warning them that the train would depart in ten minutes. James jumped, and then grinned at them all. "We done with the lovey-dovey stuff? Good, because I can see a muggle-born with my name on it, and she's getting away!" He made a ridiculous spectacle of himself, dramatically leaping across the platform to help Lily Evans load her suitcase, for which he got a sharp slap around the ears and a glare. Hermione sighed. Over the years he'd only grown more terribly flamboyant, with Sirius growing with him, and to add to that embarrassment he'd also, apparently, lost control of his hormones. Mostly, she ignored his obsessions, but Lily Evans…

That one was a problem.

Not only was he the bully of Lily's best friend, but he was also hilariously horrible at flirting, so half the time he accidentally insulted her/her friends/her family. Like at the end of Hermione's second year, when he'd butted into a conversation she was having with her parents and sister on the platform to say "Merlin, Lils, is this your sister? You obviously got all the looks in the family!". To be fair to him, he wasn't to know about her precarious family situation, but either way he shouldn't have said it. In a way, Hermione felt bad for Lily, but also not at all – the redhead never told him to stop, only made a show of how annoyed she was about it. Hermione knew James – no matter how infatuated he was, if the lass told him to stop, he'd stop, and just go back to pining after her from across the common room. But she didn't, and now it was all school-wide pranks to show his undying affection; flowers sprouting out of the seat of Slytherins' robes, Hufflepuffs paid to follow her around littering petals in her path, Ravenclaws hexed to sing love songs when they sit next to her in Herbology.

He really was going to tremendous lengths to win her affections; last year, everybody had refused to leave their common rooms on Valentine's Day until the other 'Marauders' – that's right, they had a name now – had eventually taken written promises of peace to their respective Seventh-Year Prefects, each sheet of paper notarised by Dorcas, the only Ravenclaw who dared to step outside.

Hermione watched as Snape glowered at James from over Lily's shoulder, grabbing the trunk himself and dragging it inside. Lily followed her devoted servant, nose in the air.

Shaking her head, Hermione told her parents she'd see them at Christmas and boarded herself, meandering around and through crowds of students, waving greetings here and there, until she found Dorcas and settled in with her. Dorcas gave her an absentminded wave, her eyes fixed on something outside of the window.

"What's happening?" Hermione asked, shuffling over to the edge of her seat to join her friend.

"Look," Dor murmured, pointing at a group of people stood together. It took a second for Hermione to recognise the Shafiqs.

Rida and Rue, always beautiful, had surpassed expectations as they went through puberty, both seeming to transform the second they hit fourteen into willowy, vibrant creatures that male students frequently stopped to stare at as they passed in the corridors. Rue, still ever the introvert, would blush and hurry away, but Rida had taken to sashaying her way through the halls, glamorous and untouchable. Hermione, seeing their mother Amira for the first time, could understand where they got it. Tall, regal, with sharp cheekbones and pouty lips, even happily-married wizards were giving her second looks, all of which were returned with disinterested, dismissive eyes from the matriarch as she hung from her equally handsome husband's arm. Her husband, Tahir, seemed to take notes of them all, glowering possessively from her side. Stood with them was another tall, handsome man with smooth dark skin the colour of Dorcas's beloved chocolate, only this man smiled down at the girls, nodding as Rue – talked!

"Merlin's beard!" Hermione gasped, watching her usually reticent friend gesticulate, a smile on her lips even as she seemed to argue with him. Rida stood with her arms folded slightly to the side, watching the interaction sulkily. After a few minutes, the whistle sounded again, and she tugged on Rue's arm, bodily dragging her away from the older man, who watched her leave, looking as though he'd just had a spiritual experience.

"That's Harish Patil," Dorcas murmured, sounding awe-struck.

"But…" Hermione's quick mind worked. "Isn't he…?"

"Rida's betrothed, yes," Dor breathed. They swapped wide-eyed looks as the compartment door flew open and Marlene bounded in, apparently unhindered by the weight of her own trunk.

"Good news!" She declared, throwing her trunk atop the bench and sprawling out next to it, pink-cheeked with excitement.

"Where have you been?" Dorcas asked rudely, crossing her arms. "I haven't heard from you in weeks!"

"Did you not hear me say 'good news'? Here, I'll try again – GOOD NEWS!"

Hermione winced at the shriek, Rida and Rue doing the same as they entered, Rue still being dragged along by her sister. "Oh, goodie," Rida drawled, depositing Rue onto a seat. "The freak is still here."

"Yes!" Marlene said, volume still way too loud. "And she has good news!"

"Unless it's of your impending expulsion, I could not care any less, I really couldn't."

"Pshh. Spoilsport." Marlene waved Rida off impatiently and grinned at the rest of them. "My parents are getting divorced!"

"What?!" There was a sudden intake of breath from everybody, until Rida, again, broke it. "How shameful," she sneered. "I don't see how that's good news at all."

Flipping her hair, Marlene scowled at Rida. "It's good news because it means my father won't be shackled to that hag any longer. Okay with you?"

"No," Rida said calmly. "I thought I was quite clear that it was not. Divorce – tearing apart and soiling the very sanctity of marriage. It's disgusting."

"Congratulations, Marlene," Rue said softly. "To be married to a person one does not love – I can imagine no worse fate." Then she fell silent again, a far away look on her face as she gazed out of the window. Harish Patil, Hermione noted, was still watching the train.

"Thank you, Rue," Marlene nodded, smiling at the quiet girl. "At least someone has the appropriate response."

"Yes, yes, congratulations to your parents on their decision to tear their lives asunder and risk losing their blessings and their magic," Rida sneered.

"Yes, alright, we get it," Hermione snapped. Rida jolted, glaring in her direction. "Gods, you sound like… like…"

"Like a Muggle," Dorcas supplied helpfully. Hermione gave her a dark look.

"I was going to say religious fanatic. You can't lump all muggles in as 'the big bad thing'."

"Aren't they, though?" Rida asked. "Thanks to Muggles, we all run and hide. We're unable to be ourselves without fear of persecution."

"Not true," Hermione replied, scowling. "That's not the Muggle's fault as a whole, it's a small amount of muggles whom you're using to represent the whole race. You know better than that, Rida Shafiq."

Rida sniffed, but let it go, Hermione's point making its mark. "Whatever. It's not like there's anything that can be done, anyway." They all turned to look at her with varying amounts of suspicion on their faces, and she grunted. "Don't look at me like that. You think I'm going to become a Death Eater? You really think Rida Shafiq will bow down to some 'Dark Lord'? No, thank you." She smiled, a real, toothy smile as sharp as any knife. "Dark Lords bow down to me."

As creepy as the statement was, it was also oddly reassuring, and Hermione knew by looking around that the others felt the same relief. Rida alone was terrifying, but Rida as part of a scheme to murder hundreds and overthrow a government? They would be completely screwed.

The compartment door – which they should probably just leave open, the amount of traffic that made its way through – was opened by a toned, muscular arm, which revealed itself to be attached to an equally muscular man, stood in the doorway with his elbow resting on Regulus Black's shoulders, his shiny blue 'Head Boy' pin in pride of place on his lapel. "Alright, girls?" Kingsley asked in his rolling baritone, Regulus meeting Hermione's eyes with a resigned look so deadpan she couldn't stop herself from giggling. His eyes lit up in return, and twitched with amusement. Kingsley, noticing her lack of composure, scowled good-naturedly down at Regulus.

"Reggie, for Merlin's sake, you were meant to just stand there and make me look cool in front of the ladies. Is that so much to ask?"

"I mean…" Regulus looked him up and down slowly and winced.

Kingsley's booming laugh rolled out and he released Slytherin, who has dwarfed under his size. "Git," he said fondly, reaching out to touch his hair. Regulus, in a move so similar to his brother's Hermione caught her breath, darted out of the way and span in the older boy's direction, his hands coming up protectively. Kingsley laughed again, rolling his eyes. "You Blacks are all the same," he teased, confirming Hermione's thoughts. Then, apparently ready to get down to business, he looked around. "Where are Clarence and Xavier?"

Regulus dumped himself in the space next to Hermione, grimacing at her. "I tried to escape, I really did," he confided in a low voice, a wary eye on his tormentor. "But he was waiting outside the carriage for me – I don't know how he does it but I swear he's half Seer."

"Or half sniffer dog," Hermione mused as Kingsley lunged into the corridor for a split second, coming back in beaming proudly with a Hufflepuff hanging from each arm. "So impressive," she sighed, taking a moment to give in to her hormones and admire the flex of his arms when he threw the two boys into their seats. The sigh she heard from Dorcas mirrored hers, but Regulus only gave a disgusted grunt, which she ignored, as well as the obligatory 'what's a sniffer dog?'.

"Right, now we're all here…" Kingsley looked around again, seeming to suddenly take in the fact that they were entirely out of seats. Last year he'd fit easily with the seven of them, but it seemed all of the lads had grown some over the summer, and some of the women too. "Oh," he wrinkled his nose, before his face lit up as they came to rest on Rue. Rue, unused to the complete focus of the gigantic Ravenclaw, seemed to shrink in her seat. "You're not meant to be here," he said accusingly.

She blinked up at him.

"You need to go, please," he told her politely, waving to the door.

She blinked again, uncomprehendingly. Hermione muffled a snigger. It was a good act, and one Rue'd employed to great effect repeatedly over the years. Because she didn't like speaking and had dark skin, people assumed she was simple or stupid, and just ignored her. Kingsley often did, too, but that was because he thought she was harmless and sweet. Up until she stole his seat, of course.

"I'm not buying it, Rue," he continued sternly. "You can take yourself and your big doe-eyes and go sit with the other Gryffs. It's not like they're not going to tell you what's happening."

Finally, Rue shrugged and squeezed herself out of her spot, stalking to the door. At the last minute, though, she stopped in front of Kingsley and prodded him on one of his (delightfully shaped) pectorals. "Tuh," she tutted. "Like you'll fit." Then she pushed past and slinked off, the door slamming shut behind her.

True to Rue's prediction Kingsley did not fit, but Marlene took pity on him, reaching out and tugging Dorcas over onto her lap. Kingsley winked his thanks, which did nothing to cool Dorcas's burning cheeks, garnering another disapproving noise from Regulus.

"Right, fourth year! My last year with you lot, too. Oi, you could at least look sad."

Marlene snorted into Dorcas's shorn hair. "Sad? Without you, Gryffindor might have a shot at the Quidditch Cup. I'm planning to have a party."

"Aw, Marley, you know just how to charm a man." He reached over and bumped her fist with his own, Clarence watching his every move closely so that, Hermione suspected, he could remember it to try himself later. "Still – my last year, so we're stepping up the Defense work while you've got me. And, Marley, of course – my glamorous assistant."

Dorcas raised a hand waveringly into the air. She was in the habit of treating Kingsley like a teacher, if one that could also be a centrefold in PlayWitch. Which, yeah, didn't help her shyness at all. Kingsley smiled kindly at her as he told her to ask her question, and she almost melted into a pool of goo. "Erm – King – Mr. Shacklebolt, sir…" she coughed a little and Marlene rolled her eyes with great affection, resting her chin on the top of Dorcas's head, an easy task given Dor was so diminutive next to Marlene's Amazonian form. "Even me?"

"Yes, Miss Meadowes, even you. Dumbledore's orders."

Dorcas winced, as did Hermione, Rida, and Regulus. That phrase was something they heard all too often in their little sessions, especially considering the Headmaster was never there, and none of them had spoken to him more than perhaps four times total over the past three years. It seemed he was an ever-present puppetmaster, leading them blindly into the future, preparing them for some purpose he had yet to reveal. Whatever it was, Hermione had to agree with Rida: it wouldn't be good for them.

"Sorry," Kingsley said with a sympathetic moue, noticing all the flinching. "But – well, it's true. And he's the one that got me into the Fast-Track Auror scheme, so I'm not going to argue. So, we'll be meeting every two weeks on a Tuesday at seven in the usual place."

There was a general groan, but nobody argued. Kingsley beamed and nodded again, before checking his watch. "Oh. That's all there was." He leaned back out of the way when Rida glared at him angrily. "Yeah, I know, but how was I supposed to know I'd get through it so quickly? At the very least I expected Dorcas to cry, then Marlene to punch me, then you to hex Marlene – and then we'd be at Hogwarts. Really, it's a shock to everyone that no-one's been hurt."

"I can change that if you'd like," Marlene bantered sweetly, blowing on her knuckles with a wink. Kingsley grinned at her – a more warm, natural grin than he'd given the others. For all that they spent time together and were friends, of a sort, everybody knew he favoured Marlene, who had spent the past three years of Fridays, Wednesdays and whenever else they could get together wrestling, boxing and duelling him in some dark room in the dungeons. Marlene, when asked, would say that "nothing bonds a person quite like a fight", but Hermione thought maybe it also had something to do with the fact that, at almost-fifteen (with a birthday on the 2nd November), Marlene stood to his shoulder, had thick blonde hair to her waist, sinewy muscle on every inch of her body and did, in fact, look like a teenage boy's warrior woman wet dream. Kingsley had some sixth-year girlfriend he'd been going out with for two years now; it didn't measure up to his relationship with Marley.

Kingsley didn't seem to notice his own attraction however so Hermione didn't bother to bring it up.

"Ah, let me at least have a day of rest, love," he rumbled. "But I'll take you up on that tomorrow, yeah?"

"Oh, yes," Marlene gave a sultry wink.


Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

"Hermione," Rida called as they made their way to the castle. The girl caught up to her, threading their fingers together and ignoring Hermione's incredulous look. Together they wove through the crowd until Rida had her hidden behind one of Hogwarts' many large, random stone pillars. "I need a favour."

"A favour?" Hermione blinked rapidly, trying to compute. Rida Shafiq needed something from her?

"Yes, a favour!" Rida snapped, then breathed deeply to calm herself again. "Just a little research project, nothing big. Betrothal bonds and the like." She was aiming for nonchalant but was off by a mile, which more than anything told Hermione how distressed she was. If she'd simply looked upset, Hermione would have assumed she'd simply shown that emotion to manipulate her.

"Betrothal bonds…" Hermione clarified slowly.

Rida shot her a sharp look. "Aren't you meant to be clever?" she demanded. "Yes. Betrothal bonds. Gods above, how do you reds get anything done?" she turned to strut away on her ridiculous spindly shoes, but paused to throw a glare over her shoulder. "Soon, please, Potter." Then she disappeared, leaving Hermione stunned – mostly because she'd said please.


Hogwarts' School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Great Hall

It was business as usual for the Welcome Feast. The Marauders were strutting like peacocks, all posturing to ensure nobody attempted to take their place on the food-chain; Marlene was in a staring contest with Benjy Fenwick again over the last of the gravy (a condiment Marlene didn't even like, but enjoyed wasting while she watched the look on Fenwick's face grow more and more desolate); Hermione and Regulus exchanged sarcastic notes across the hall about both old and new staff members – notes he showed to Snape to entertain him and had once been known to get a smile (a smile!) out of the grumpy fifth year. Professor McGonagall oversaw the Sorting, Dumbledore gave an incomprehensible speech, and they were all sent off to bed with full stomachs and the warmth of their second home surrounding them. Fawcett and Shepherd didn't even acknowledge them.

"Business as usual," Marlene told Hermione as they climbed the stairs to bed.

Hermione would have agreed, but that was when Fawcett screamed.